“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
It is human nature to make comparisons with others as a way of evaluating ourselves and where we are at in life. Ordinarily, we compare our lives with those in our social spheres including our family, friends, peers and colleagues. These comparisons determine how we construct our ideas and expectations for our lives, usually in relation to the specific areas that are deemed important by modern society such as appearance, wealth, relationships, professional achievement etc.
While this can motivate and inspire us to improve in different areas, which is essential for personal growth, comparisons can become destructive if we allow them to magnify the lack in our own lives. This can leave us feeling inferior and as though our achievements aren’t adequate when stacked up against other people. Before we even realize, we can be swept up into a competitive world and make daily choices that satisfy societies expectations but are not actually congruent with what we truly want for our lives. A good illustration of the power of suggestion.
Buying into the “comparison trap” creates a perpetual cycle of striving for perfection or the idea that we must be (or at least appear) better so we can become happier. Everywhere we look we are marketed an illusion of what lifestyle we should pursue, how we should look, what to buy, places to go, the current trends to follow in order to be more satisfied and reach success. Many of these ideals that society promotes are unstable and the attempt to attain and maintain them can leave us in a state of dissatisfaction, always wanting more and corrupts our hearts with jealousy, resentment and ungratefulness - all of which are a recipe for depression. Failing to live up to these standards can also cause us to experience a “fear of missing out” and get stuck in a mentality that “the grass is greener over the fence.” The goal posts vary depending on the sphere of life we are in, nevertheless, it affects us all in the same way.
In recent years, the increased exposure to social media, the internet and televised entertainment, has greatly accelerated our means of social comparison and therefore made the comparison trap even more challenging to avoid. Users of social media such as Instagram and Facebook are faced with an endless reel of highlights and perfect representations of how other people live, it’s no wonder we can find ourselves feeling discontented with what we have. According to recent statistics, the average person spends 2 hours a day on social media and this has been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem especially among young people. Although there are many advantages to social media, the mismanagement of it can have a negative impact on the way we view ourselves and the lives we lead. Platforms like Instagram tend to shine a spotlight particularly on the strengths and successes of others, to which we compare to our weaknesses and deficiencies, hence the noticeable discrepancy. From the outset, the comparison is unfair as the scale is extremely out of balance.
Often the things we want and lust after as a result of comparison, are external rewards that produce fleeting feelings of gratification, a false sense of confidence and belonging, and higher status among people. When we seek out external rewards in the hopes that it will validate us, we are engaging in what psychology refers to as ‘extrinsic motivation.’ This means that our underlying reasoning behind pursuing goals is not necessarily healthy, rather is being driven by the desire to achieve tangible rewards, gain status and approval from others or avoid negative consequences. For example, those who place high importance on accumulating wealth, popularity and presenting an attractive appearance for the purpose of reputation, power, admiration from others and to avoid perceived negative consequences, such as social rejection and anxiety, are considered to be motivated extrinsically.
On the other hand, intrinsic motivation refers to being driven towards goals because they are consistent with an individual’s core values and genuinely produces satisfaction and joy e.g. pursuing an art hobby because you genuinely enjoy it rather than doing it out of expectation or to fit in with others. Being intrinsically motivated suggests congruency with an individual’s sense of self and need for autonomy, which reinforces healthy self-esteem. It is also correlated with greater well-being, performance, life satisfaction, positive emotion, vitality and many more benefits.
There is extensive evidence in the psychological literature demonstrating that individuals who are extrinsically motivated towards their goals report lower well-being, higher levels of mental health issues, and poorer self-actualization, self-esteem, vitality, social functioning and performance. It’s fair to say that keeping up with the Jones’s is not helpful and can become an all-consuming distraction that blinds us from the things that genuinely matter to us and causes us to behave in ways that are contradictory to our authentic self. Striving evidently produces some ugly qualities that not only blocks joy but also impacts our relationships, our functioning and performance in every area of life, our personal growth and ultimately steers us away from intrinsic motivations and values.
So, in a world where we are constantly faced with this challenge, when will enough be enough? How do we protect ourselves from becoming victims of the social standards society projects and consequently becoming preoccupied by wanting and envying the successes of others? How can we learn to stay in our own lane? Here are a few things to consider:
Know who you are
There are so many different influences and voices in our society and culture today that can infiltrate us on a personal level. If we do not have a strong sense of identity and worth, society will decide for us. We must all be intentional about deciding what kind of person we want to be, what we want to stand for and the why behind everything we do and pursue. What are the driving forces and values you want to live your life by? Then you will always have an anchor to come back to in times where you may be noticing comparison creeping in. Ask yourself why do I want that or why am I pursuing that? What is the underlying motivation? Is it for status and to meet expectations? Or do you genuinely desire those things for the right reasons? Knowing who you are will guide you to engage in intrinsic motivation. Be a leader not a follower.
Guard your heart
There is an ancient scripture that says “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If our actions stem from the condition of our hearts, take some time to reflect on what you allow into your heart and drive you. Do you find yourself feeling jealous? Bitter? Never satisfied and always wanting? Being critical and judgemental? Feeling a sense of superiority and entitlement? If so, we may need to adjust what and who we allow to influence us. We must be diligent with exercising boundaries to protect us from complying with all the different voices surrounding us. This may look like limiting social media usage or unfollowing accounts which trigger those feelings for us. It may also look like spending less time with certain people or being very cautious about who you are vulnerable with. Know the areas in your life where you can get trapped comparing and put things in place to safeguard them.
Focusing on what we don’t have produces discontent and ungratefulness which is linked with depression and anxiety. Instead of focusing on all the negative things, shift your focus to what you are grateful for and count your blessings. It may start with only a few simple things, but it will get easier the more you learn to stop and look at the positive aspects of ourselves and our lives. The grass is actually not green on the other side so we may as well learn to be content with our circumstances now so that we have more mental energy to be purposeful about the things we care most about like spending time with family and pursuing passions etc. The next time you find yourself feeling crappy about your life, try it. Bring to mind a few things that you are grateful for such as a satisfying cup of coffee, the sun shining, the sound of the birds outside or bigger things like a working vehicle, a secure job, loving family members etc.
4. Celebrate others’ wins
Jealousy and envy can creep into everyone’s lives and whispers that we should have received that opportunity, reward or recognition. Combat it by celebrating other people’s wins and what may feel like a struggle to show support to others will eventually in time become genuine delight in their good fortune. True generosity of spirit means that we freely offer praise and encouragement irrespective of our own situations and even if we feel offended or our ego is wounded.
The next time you find yourself comparing to the lives of others, remember that it is a slippery slope to unpleasant emotions and grudges towards yourself and others that will flow out into your social environments and may cost you more than you realize. Staying in your lane requires you to respect and appreciate where you are at in life and also apply the same rule to others. Visualize two lines on either side of you and know that the path you are on is unique to you as is for everyone else. It just may save you from a whole lot of unnecessary heart ache and derailing. Don’t let the comparison trap steal your joy. After all, comparing other people’s highlight reel with your shortcomings is out of balance in itself so cannot ever offer any benefit to you despite its appeal.
Clinical Psychologist and Writer for Be That